Data discrimination

Data Discrimination is the selective filtering of information by a service provider over a network. This has been an issue in the recent debate over net neutrality. [1] Non-discrimination mandates that one class of customers may not be favored over another so the network that is built is the same and every network user has equal upload and download capabilities.[2]

Net neutrality

Main article: Net neutrality

The principle of equal treatment of traffic, called "Net Neutrality" by proponents, is not enshrined in law in the United States but is supported by some regulations. Most of the debate around the issue has centered on tentative plans, now postponed, by large Internet carriers to offer preferential treatment of traffic from certain content providers for a fee.[3] Network neutrality is a set of rules that forbid network owners from discriminating against independent applications (instead of against competing ISPs, as with open access).[2]

Internet censorship

Main article: Internet censorship

The concept of freedom of information has emerged in response to state sponsored censorship, monitoring and surveillance of the Internet. Internet censorship includes the control or suppression of the publishing or accessing of information on the Internet. Data discrimination may also occur on a national level to censor of political, 'immoral' or religious material content.

For example, China[4] and Saudi Arabia[5] both filter content on the Internet, preventing access to certain types of websites. Singapore has network blocks on more than 100 sites.[6] In Britain, telecommunication companies block access to websites that depict sexually explicit images of children. In the United Arab Emirates as of 2006, Skype was being blocked. In Norway, some ISPs use a voluntary filter to censor websites that the police (Kripos) believe to contain images of abuse of children.[7] Germany also blocks foreign sites for copyright and other reasons.[8] In the U.S., public institutions (e.g. libraries and schools), by law, block material that is related to the exploitation of children, and 'obscene and pornographic' material, unless they do not receive funding. The network filters also block sites and material relating to women’s health, gay and lesbian rights groups, and sexual education for teenagers.[9][10]

Debate over Data Discrimination

Viewpoint of Pro-discrimination advocates

While the basic principle of data discrimination is censorship, those in favor of this practice claim that there are benefits. The ISPs are a business, and as such, “…correctly state that external, non-market driven constraints on their ability to price discriminate can adversely impact their incentive to invest in broadband infrastructure and their ability to recoup that investment.”[1] There are times when it could make sense, in the eyes of the ISPs, to give preference to one type of content over another. For example, loading a plain text and image website is not nearly as strenuous as loading sites such as Hulu and YouTube. Frieden states that, “Some Internet Service Providers (ISPs) seek to diversify the Internet by prioritizing bitstreams and by offering different quality of service guarantees. To some observers, this strategy constitutes harmful discrimination that violates a tradition of network neutrality in the switching, routing and transmission of Internet traffic.”[1] While the QoS argument is that network neutrality rules make allowances for network owners to practice some types of discrimination to protect the functioning of the network.[2]

Harmfulness of Data Discrimination

Those that oppose data discrimination say that it hurts the growth of the Internet, as well as the economy that is rooted into the depths of the Internet model. “Instead of promoting competition, such picking of winners and losers will stifle the investment needed to perpetuate the Internet's phenomenal growth, hurting the economy.“[11] If, for example, telecommunication network operators blocked data packets of Voice-over-IP services that might substitute their own telephone services, this would not only discriminate against specific firms, but also reduce competition and economic welfare. Technically, this would not be a problem. Although data packets are homogeneous with respect to switching and transmission treatment, type, source, and destination can be revealed and data packets be handled differently if a network operator prefers to do so.[12] Another problem is that the type of data that is given preferential treatment is up to the discretion of the ISP. This allows them to move data as they see fit, whether it be through a political, moral, any other such kind of "lens". This goes against the first amendment, the freedom of speech because by stopping certain kinds of information from reaching the end user, they are censoring content. It is not the place of the ISP to censor content from the people.

The real threat to an open Internet is at the local network (the ends), where network owners can block information coming in from the inter-network, but it also is at the local network where the most harm can occur. Because of this, network neutrality rules allow some discrimination by the local network to protect itself, though it may not be based on content or type of application. For example, network owners want to protect their networks from being damaged. So, some discrimination is allowed to "prevent physical harm to the local Broadband Network caused by any network attachment or network usage." This means that local network operators may not control which types of applications users choose to employ, what type of devices users use to access the network, or which type of legal content users choose to convey or consume. The only allowable restrictions are on applications that cause harm to the local network.[2]

Proponents of network neutrality concede that network security is crucial enough to warrant making exception to a network neutrality rule. Allowing network providers to deviate from neutrality only to the extent necessary to protect network trustworthiness is rooted in judicial and regulatory decisions and administrative rules that helped establish the principle of nondiscrimination as the core of network neutrality.[13] Sen. Al Franken has spoken out on FCC rulings “calling net neutrality the 'free speech issue of our time,'” Franken (D-MN) expressed his displeasure with the FCC’s recent net neutrality rules. ‘These rules are not strong enough,' he said, pointing out that paid prioritization was not banned and that wireless networks are allowed to discriminate at will. The rules mark the ‘first time the FCC has ever allowed discrimination on the Internet’ and they ‘will create essentially two Internets.’[14]

The FCC and Data Discrimination

In the United States, the Federal Communications Commission does not permit data discrimination except for "reasonable traffic management."[15]

The Federal Communication Commission defines reasonable traffic management as follows:

A network management practice is reasonable if it is appropriate and tailored to achieving a legitimate network management purpose, taking into account the particular network architecture and technology of the broadband Internet access service.[16]

It is considered unreasonable for internet service providers to manage traffic by blocking applications or assigning quality of service based on source, destination, or unreasonable application provider payment.[17] Regardless, there are currently no laws prohibiting internet service providers from offering different service plans that may restrict consumers' access to selected material.[18]In June 2007 the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) published Broadband Connectivity Competition Policy which suggested that it may be beneficial to consumers if broadband providers would pursue a variety of business arrangements, including data prioritization, exclusive deals, and vertical integration into online content and applications. The report also suggests that government should move cautiously in implementing any changes to current regulations.[19]

FCC Appeals

Evidence of Anti-competitiveness

During a hearing held by Rep. Greg Walden, one of the speakers put forth a question that needs to be addressed by the FCC, as well as other groups that are in support of Net Neutrality. The speaker said, "If the mere threat of Internet discrimination is such a concern and if the FCC has done no analysis to demonstrate why one company has more market power than another, why would discrimination by companies like Google or Skype be any more acceptable than discrimination by companies like AT&T and Comcast?"[11] During the same hearing, a different member spoke up and quoted Section 230 of the Communications Act saying, "...preserve the vibrant and competitive free market that presently exists for the Internet and other interactive computer services, unfettered by federal or state regulations." essentially saying that there should be laws in place so that the government knows how to handle its authority over the FCC and ISPs. He did not say that these laws are not laws meant for regulating what the FCC does, but how the FCC should act.[11]

In 2005, a small North Carolina telecom company, Madison River Communications, blocked their DSL customers from using the Vonage VoIP service. Service was restored after the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) intervened and entered into a consent decree that had Madison River pay a fine of $15,000.[22] In this case, the FCC investigated allegations that Madison River violated nondiscriminatory obligations contained in the Communications Act, but the redefinition of broadband as an information service dramatically reduces the authority of regulators to deter this kind of competitive misconduct.[23]

As Anti-Piracy

Instances of data discrimination

Worldwide, the BitTorrent application is widely given reduced bandwidth or even in some cases blocked entirely.[25] Worldwide, under heavy attack from spam e-mail, many e-mail servers no longer accept connections except from white-listed hosts. While few care about the rights of spammers, this means that legitimate hosts not on the list are often blocked.[26]

Save The Internet, an advocacy organization led by Free Press, is documenting situations in which ISPs have engaged in data discrimination.


  1. 1 2 3 Frieden, R (2008). "A Primer on Network Neutrality". Intereconomics (43): 4–15.
  2. 1 2 3 4 Bagwell, Dana. "A First Amendment Case For Internet Broadband Network Neutrality". University of Washington. Retrieved 8 Feb 2011.
  3. 1 2 3 Svensson, Peter (2010-10-19). "Comcast Blocks Some Internet Traffic". The Washington Post. Retrieved 2011-08-02.
  4. Archived February 27, 2008, at the Wayback Machine.
  5. Archived February 28, 2008, at the Wayback Machine.
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  7. Charman, Suw (2006-10-26). "UKNOF5: Richard Clayton - Content Filtering". Open Rights Group.
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  9. (PDF) Archived from the original (PDF) on October 29, 2008. Retrieved November 28, 2008. Missing or empty |title= (help)
  11. 1 2 3 Walden, Greg (February 2011). "REP. GREG WALDEN HOLDS A HEARING ON NETWORK NEUTRALITY/INTERNET REGULATION.". Political Transcript Wire: 1.
  12. Kruse, Jorn (Jan–Feb 2008). "Network Neutrality and Quality of Service". Intereconomics: 25–30. Retrieved 8 Feb 2011.
  13. Burstein, Aaron (2009). Trustworthiness as a Limitation on Network Neutrality. Federal Communications Law Journal. pp. 591–623.
  14. Anderson, Nate (2011-01-20). "Comcast Is Trying To Whack Netflix: Sen Al Franken.". Wired. Retrieved 8 Feb 2011.
  15. Svensson, Peter (Jan 2008). "FCC to probe Comcast data discrimination". msnbc. Retrieved 2008-11-28.
  16. Federal Communications Commission (December 23, 2010). "In the Matter of Preserving the Open Internet Broadband Industry Practices" (PDF): 48. Retrieved 2011-03-02.
  17. Scott, Jordan (September 2009). "How to determine whether a traffic management practice is reasonable" (PDF). TPRC. Retrieved 2011-02-27.
  18. "Full Text Comcast vs FCC Federal Court Ruling". April 2010. Retrieved 2011-03-02.
  19. Plunkett, Jack W. (2008). Plunkett’s Telecommunications Industry Almanac 2009. Plunkett Research. p. 208. ISBN 978-1-59392-141-5.
  20. "Verizon's Net Neutrality Challenge Claims It Violates Their Licenses". 2011-01-21. Retrieved 2011-08-02.
  21. Marcus, Stephanie. "AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile Unlikely To Challenge Net Neutrality.". Retrieved 9 Feb 2011.
  23. Network neutrality: Competition, innovation, and nondiscriminatory access : hearing before the Task Force on Telecom and Antitrust on of the Committee on the Judiciary, House of Representatives, One Hundred Ninth Congress, second session. Washington: U.S. G.P.O. 2006.
  24. Stone, Brad (2008-01-08). "att-and-other-isps-may-be-getting-ready-to-filter". New York Times.
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  26. Elosegui, Paul (2006-05-17). "Email Delivery Neutrality Gone Forever". EUCAP.
  27. "Telus cuts subscriber access to pro-union website". CBC News. 2005-07-24. Retrieved 2006-07-10.
  28. "AOL charged with blocking opponents' e-mail". ZDNet News. 2006-04-13. Archived from the original on 2006-06-17. Retrieved 2006-07-10.
  29. "Silicon Valley Watcher".
  30. TorrentFreak. Comcast Throttles BitTorrent Traffic, Seeding Impossible August 17, 2007
  31. EFF,tests agree with AP: Comcast is forging packets to interfere with user traffic, OCTOBER 19TH, 2007
  32. Svensson, Peter, and AP T. Writer. "Comcast Blocks some Subscriber Internet Traffic, AP Testing shows." The Associated Press October 20, 2007.
  33. Liptak, Adam (2007-09-27). "Verizon Rejects Text Messages For Abortion Rights Group". New York Times. Retrieved 2010-05-01.
  34. "Verizon Wireless restores 4chan traffic". Wireless Federation. 2010-02-04. Retrieved 2010-11-01. |first1= missing |last1= in Authors list (help)
  35. O'Grady, Mary (2011-02-07). "Will Cuba Be the Next Egypt?". The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved 9 Feb 2011.
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